By Michael Leahy
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page W14
Like millions of Americans, Deke Baskin's love affair with food has come at a severe cost. At nearly 300 pounds, he is diabetic, needs an oxygen mask and a motorized scooter. His daughter weighs even more. What will it take for them -- for us -- to break free of our overeating obsession?
This is the cost of it, David Baskin figures. He sits, not moving, in a broken-down motorized shopping cart in a Wal-Mart in Oxford, Miss., waiting for store employees to bring him one that works. He sits with his green oxygen tank alongside him in the cart and translucent tubes running into his nose. He is ambulatory, but not fit to walk more than a few steps. Can't walk 50 feet without panting so hard that he thinks he'll keel over. It scares him. At 52, he is an ill man who views his plight as a consequence in no small part of all his good eating over the years.
"Hush yer mouth," he says to a companion.
It is what the man known as Deke sometimes says in happier moments, particularly at a dinner table when somebody has just complimented him on a tasty meal he's fixed, tasty in no small part because the food is laden with fat -- Boston butt roasts and slabs of pork ribs and green beans cooked in ham fat. Damn, those beans are good, man, he reminds guests in his fast-talking way, just to make sure they don't miss out. Hush yer mouth means, among other things, that no praise is necessary; that the food is so superb that compliments are gratuitous; that it should just be eaten.
He once owned and managed a renowned barbecue joint in Oxford. But his ill health means he can't work full time any longer, and he closed the restaurant earlier this year so he could try to get well. He doesn't pity himself. Instead he regales guests with stories about his best days: "I had the best barbecue place around, and I still got the best sauces and dry seasoning. I'm barbecue in Oxford and the whole South. The others think they can do Deke, but only Deke can do Deke. Haaaaaaaa."
With the speed of his patter and that smart-alecky, rollicking laugh, he is a force of nature, blessed with a charisma that made him a man around town when he wrote a book about his recipes -- Deke's BBQ: Hush Yer Mouth -- and had a plate of ribs for whoever needed one. Now he limits himself to catering barbecue parties, selling his sauces and watching his favorite soap opera, "The Young and the Restless," each morning. He tells himself that he needs to get into better shape, lay off the munchies and drop some pounds. "But it's a hard thing, man," he tells people. Hard when the TV is always telling you about some great new fried chicken deal down the street or a cheeseburger to rival the Double Whopper -- hard when you've gone through your whole life tasting what Deke calls the "tasty taste" and not knowing or wanting any other taste but the tasty taste. It's a hush-yer-mouth world, he thinks. People just want the food, and don't want to be nagged about it. "It's powerful, it's like a narcotic, man," he says. "It's gotta be a tasty narcotic to get a man like this. Look at this."
This means all of this -- that oxygen tank, those tubes, but especially his girth. At 5 feet 9 and 296 pounds, Deke Baskin is "morbidly obese," a term reserved by health agencies for the most overweight adults, as defined by a subject's "body mass index" -- a term meant to indicate body fat, and a figure derived by using a formula that essentially divides weight by height. Deke Baskin's BMI is 43.7, on a scale where 25 to 29.9 is simply overweight for adults, 30 is obese and 40 morbidly obese. In what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterizes as an epidemic, obesity has risen in all areas of the country over the past decade, but nowhere else is the problem as great as it is in Mississippi, where slightly more than one in four people are obese, according to CDC statistics.
Deke has had diabetes for 10 years, largely a consequence of his weight. He suffers from lupus and gout. He has a heart problem that landed him in the hospital a few months ago, when, he recalls, his doctors suggested to him that he couldn't expect to live many years longer unless he shed weight.
He has lost a few pounds since. Still he grants himself what he calls an occasional "cheat day" to indulge. "Maybe once a week or every 10 days; I'd go crazy if I didn't get some of my food," he admits. Just the same, he is trying to eat wisely, including staying away from fried foods, and earlier today sought to set an example for his overweight daughter, Marie Pomerlee, at a local restaurant. He eschewed his customary order of several slices of high-caloric, high-fat fried catfish in favor of a single broiled piece of catfish.
But, having eaten properly so far all day, he now feels a familiar pang. Comfortable at last in a functioning motorized cart, Deke cruises down Wal-Mart's aisles, staring up at food for the taking, limitless food. "Look at all this," he says, audibly humming, pointing at packages, marveling at their size.
Ahead of him, his wife, Stella, is picking up items for a big weekend dinner, with an emphasis on healthy items -- lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, cabbage and red cabbage. In the meat department, Deke passes a container with several packages labeled "Pork Shoulder Boston Butt Roast." He points and grins. "That's what we're having tomorrow. Delicious."
The butt roast has 250 calories per serving, with 180 calories from fat, which amounts to 20 grams. It has been one of Deke's staples for three decades of adulthood, after a poor childhood in which he commonly devoured cheap neck bones high in fat and biscuits soaked in a gravy fattier still -- the residue of bacon and ham fat. He cruises down the sugar aisle, where he thinks of the baked beans he wants to serve with the weekend barbecue feast. His cart comes to a sudden halt, and he reaches up to grab a two-pound bag of Domino dark brown sugar. "You cannot possibly put too much brown sugar in baked beans," he says.
The cart resumes moving. "I've been real good today," he says. He passes the cookie and cracker section, and the candy section, where, out of his sight, Marie has picked up a few Hershey bars.
"I've been real good today," he repeats, selling himself on the idea.
He slowly cruises alongside a rack of Frito-Lay snacks, which has been set off from the long shelves and aisles to call greater attention to it. The cart slows to a stop. Stella is walking ahead of him, inspecting shelves. Deke looks up at a bag of Cheetos Crunchy, a cheese-flavored snack of bite-size munchies. It is a regular-size bag, which is to say a big bag, and relatively cheap, as most snack food is, making it affordable to virtually any consumer -- $2.49 for a bag that is larger than half a pound and yields 10 servings. One serving alone -- which consists of 21 pieces -- has 10 grams of fat in it, and 90 fat calories. Devour half a bag at a sitting, which is not unusual for Deke, and you have consumed 50 grams of fat and 450 fat calories. "Dangerously cheesy," the label boasts.
Deke looks around, slightly lifting himself from the cart. His right hand shoots out, grabs.
"Had to have that," he says softly.
EVEN IF YOU HAD JUST AWAKENED from a 40-year sleep in America and never saw a page of a dietitian's study, never heard a single statistic, you would sense the truth the moment you looked outside and saw a passing throng. You wouldn't need to go to Mississippi for that. Just a glance at Americans anywhere would tell you that something has gone awry, that too many bodies put on substantial weight in those intervening years. There is more of a waddle to our walks. There are more people profusely sweating and breathing hard, while carrying double-fisted sugary drinks from convenience marts. Big Gulpers, indeed.
This crisis sneaked up on us. Three decades of hoopla about the fitness craze in America obscured the reality that health clubs are generally frequented by an elite minority. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, with about 30 percent obese, according to the CDC. Although the weight problem is greatest in the South, no region or group of people is exempt. While Mississippi's obesity rate is 26 percent, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, all three at around 20 percent, are plagued by the problem, too. And national health officials believe that many state figures are underreported, suggesting that obesity rates everywhere are higher.
We are a conflicted people in a contradictory land. We are enthralled with the Atkins and South Beach diets, only to be enchanted like children when television offers the latest wizardry, such as a Taco Bell ad in which a taco-munching man is catapulted off his lawn mower and the voice-over promises viewers: "You'll be floored by flavor." We are alternately shamed into sweating and seduced into slurping and munching.
During hours outside prime time, when TV audiences are small, we receive advertising tips from aging celebrities, such as Christie Brinkley and Chuck Norris, on how best to use machines to do crunches and tighten backsides. Encouragement for those with fantasies of a luminous body and life is never in short supply. When Deke Baskin sits down to watch "The Young and the Restless," the weight-loss ads make him fleetingly ponder the possibilities, but then the chain restaurants' images of their latest dishes evoke his lust.
"There is this chain place called Church's Chicken down here that just makes me gotta have their fried chicken," Deke says. "The world's hard, you know, man? Stressful. And then somebody says, 'This food is gonna make you feel good, and it tastes so good, and everybody's tryin' it. Why aren't you tryin' it? Gotta try it.' And you can try it, you know? You can't do that with some things. It costs a lot, too much, to get some things, you know, like a new house, new car, vacations. But you can get food. You can get all the Church's fried chicken you want."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
At 5 feet 9 and 296 pounds, 52-year-old Deke Baskins accepts that he has to lose weight to stay alive.
(Photograph by Silvia Otte)